Laura Erickson's For the Birds

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Le Conte's Sparrow

Le Conte's Sparrow
(Transcript of today's For the Birds)

This past Saturday night I headed for Port Wing, Wisconsin, and first thing Sunday morning Photon and I took a walk down my mother-in-law’s driveway in search of a Le Conte’s Sparrow. They nest in the grassy meadow along her driveway, and my summer just doesn’t feel right until I’ve had at least one good look.

Even though I know Le Conte’s Sparrows are there, it’s virtually never easy to find them. Sam Robbins was one of Wisconsin’s real experts on them—he kept records and found that only 8 out of 86 singing males sat on perches exposed enough to provide an identifiable view. They don’t sing that persistently, and often stop singing for the day long before the sun has even come up. And their tiny insect-like song isn’t exactly easy to hear. On top of that, they hide in the grasses and can run on the ground to elude detection. One ornithologist described them as usually remaining “stubbornly in the field, creeping about like mice under mats of grass.”

So this is a secretive little bird. But finding one makes the search entirely worth the effort. Le Conte’s Sparrows are adorable—a golden buff face and black crown with a central white stripe, purplish speckling on the nape, and the spiky little tail feathers so much in vogue with grassland species. When I was first learning to take photos through my spotting scope, I got several lucky shots at a Le Conte’s Sparrow right from my mother-in-law’s driveway. The one I saw on Sunday allowed a few photos, but it was still too early to have good light and the bird didn’t get that close. That’s okay—the joy in getting a really lovely photo of Le Conte’s Sparrow wouldn’t be as lustrous if they were easier to come by.

This tiny sparrow has been among my very favorite birds since the first time I saw one on May 1, 1976, at Whitefish Point in Michigan. Russ and I were attending a Michigan Audubon field trip, and when I was wandering about on the beach, I came across one. I was a new birder and of course needed my field guide to identify it. When I went in and reported it to the rest of the group, a bird bander who worked there didn’t believe me, so I took him out and showed it to him. It was apparently one of the very first sightings they’d ever had of this species, so he put out his mist nets and had our group line up and move toward the bird to scare it into the net. After he pulled it out, while he was banding it and showing it to us, I was utterly taken with the little bird’s attitude. Here was this tiny mite being held against its will in the man’s enormous hand—yet the little sparrow didn’t look scared at all, but defiant. He reminded me of Ahab confronting Moby Dick. When I got home I looked up the weights of a Le Conte’s Sparrow, which averages 13 grams, and the weight of the largest sperm whale on record, about 150 tons. If Captain Ahab weighed 150 pounds, Moby Dick might have weighed 2,000 times what he did. But that same 150-pound man would weigh more than 5,000 times the weight of a Le Conte’s Sparrow, making the little bird’s feisty defiance even more impressive.

I was thrilled in 1977 to discover a Le Conte’s Sparrow in the meadow right in front of my in-law’s house in Port Wing. Since then, I find them there almost every time I search for them in spring or summer. But until I discovered my first one, I’d lived my life unaware that such a bird even existed. Now, every time I pass a grassy field I think about the golden treasures hiding right there, leading their full, rich lives undetected by the humans living all around them. We may or may not be the smartest animals on the planet, but we’re certainly among the most oblivious.